Love Unknown, by Thomas Travisano (Viking). This literary biography of Elizabeth Bishop underscores the aptness of her epitaph: “All the untidy activity continues, / awful but cheerful.” Bishop’s poems, which Robert Lowell called “unrhetorical, cool, and beautifully thought out,” belie the turbulence that marked her life. The outlines of that life are well known: her father’s early death, her mother’s mental illness, her drinking, her sojourns in Key West with her lover Louise Crane and in Brazil with Lota de Macedo Soares. (Intending to visit Brazil for a few weeks, Bishop stayed for nearly fifteen years, a decision partly prompted by the gift of a blue-eyed toucan, which she named Uncle Sam.) But the accounts are parsed with particular insight by Travisano, a Bishop specialist, who assiduously traces the influence of the life on the work. – The New Yorker
Travisano crafts a masterly biography that explores the enduring tension between the ‘mannerly correctness’ and passion characteristic of the life and work of Elizabeth Bishop … unfolds the many layered interconnections between Bishop’s poetry and close relationships with fellow writers, artists, friends, and lovers, with sympathy, subtlety, and acute attention to detail, especially when revealing Bishop’s quests for meaning in her extensive travels, illuminated through her words—always alongside what she had lost or feared to lose. Focusing on literary influences such as Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell, as well as the Brazilian writers who captivated Bishop later in her career, Travisano securely positions his subject in conversation with major literary figures without losing sight of her more intimate, quieter relationships … This definitive account of Bishop’s contributions to American letters will attract both casual readers of her poetry as well as academics with more specialized knowledge of her work. – Emily Bowles, Library Journal (starred review)
As founding president of the Elizabeth Bishop Society, it is not surprising that Travisano has an intimate grasp of Bishop’s life and poetry. What is surprising is how utterly captivating his biography is, let alone his illuminating, interwoven analysis of her work … Just as a young Bishop’s reading of a book about the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley inspired her to seek simultaneous immersion in his writing, so too, will Travisano’s biography spark desire to engage with Bishop’s extraordinary poems. Though not prolific, Bishop perfected her craft and left the powerful body of work so well explored here, assuring her place among the best of twentieth-century poets. – Janet St. John, Booklist (starred review)
Mr. Travisano’s portrayal of the fear and volatility that characterized Bishop’s childhood lends depth to our understanding…of Bishop’s poetry. The author suggests, compellingly, that Bishop’s inclination toward her art may stem from the baffling silences of her early life … Love Unknown points movingly to the many relationships that moored Bishop, keeping her together even as life—and her own self-destructive tendencies—threatened to split her apart. – Abigail Deutsch, The Wall Street Journal
For his insightful biography, Travisano draws upon… Bishop’s letters, notebooks, interviews and archives. He also visits the places where Bishop spent time, from her birthplace (Worcester, Massachusetts) and Great Village, Nova Scotia, where she spent her girlhood, to Greenwich Village, Paris, Key West, Rio de Janeiro and Cambridge, where she circulated among interlocking groups of artists and intellectuals. His close reading of her poems ties them to early traumas (her father died when she was a baby; when Bishop was five her mother, who suffered from serious mental illness, was institutionalised; and the uncle who was her guardian abused her) and the people and places who shaped her life. Marianne Moore, Robert Lowell, Frank Bidart and her publishers all play a role; but most powerful are the women who shared her life. –BBC Culture
It’s always a good time to revisit the brilliance of Elizabeth Bishop
After losing her home and family at a young age, Bishop spent her life seeking new ones. Her father died of Bright’s disease eight months after she was born in 1911, and Bishop’s mother — after a series of breakdowns — was committed to a mental institution in Nova Scotia when Bishop was 5.
Bishop spent a cold childhood raised by cheerless Calvinist grandparents (her official guardian, Uncle Jack, was reputedly something of a bully), and quickly learned that intense emotional attachments led to distress. She never again saw her mother — who died, still under confinement, when Bishop was in her 20s.
“When you write my epitaph,” she once told a lifelong friend, Robert Lowell, “you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.” Well, maybe. But after reading Thomas Travisano’s excellent biography, “Love Unknown,” it is clear she also enjoyed many periods of great love and happy production, as her poems (including some of the best and least sentimental love poems in the language) testify. As she wrote in one of her finest, “The Shampoo” (1955):
And since the heavens will attend
you’ve been, dear friend,
precipitate and pragmatical;
and look what happens. For Time is
So a lonely time — okay, occasionally, sure. But also one filled with successes and pleasures that were always, at the very least, “amenable.”
“I always feel safe when I’m with you. Except possibly on a Honda.”
Most of all, Bishop never lacked the luxury of time, working for years and even decades on individual poems until she got them just right. There was a dogged pertinacity to the way she composed poems, relentlessly hunting down every perfect word and nuance, often assembling her lines on a large bulletin board over her desk, like one of those serial-killer-hunting detectives in a television series.
Her life was good, at least viewed from this side of her biography. She received a Pulitzer and a National Book Award. She inspired and befriended many younger poets, such as Merrill, John Ashbery, Frank Bidart and Adrienne Rich. Throughout her life, she never faltered in her production of beautiful poems, completing some of her best work right up until her sudden and unexpected death of a cerebral aneurysm in 1979, including the much-anthologized villanelle “One Art” (with its lovely recurring line: “The art of losing isn’t hard to master”), “Crusoe in England” (about a person who, like Bishop, carries his isolation home with him after a long voyage) and finally, both grand and unforgettable, “The Moose,” about a rural bus trip interrupted by a creature that emerges from “the impenetrable wood/ and stands there, looms, rather,/ in the middle of the road.” One passenger, awestruck, exclaims: “ ‘Look! It’s a she!’ ”
Bishop was not open about private matters and was shy of giving public readings; yet throughout her life she proved quietly adventurous, even while resisting the call of her friend Rich to be more forthcoming about her “sexual identity.” But being forthcoming about anything was not Bishop’s approach to life, which may partly explain why each of her poems reaches out and embraces its reader in ways they never expect. “You know what I want?” she once asked her friend Richard Howard. “I want closets, closets, and more closets.” There was something secret about every poem she composed, like a private space that you only slowly found your way into. And one that never made you eager to leave.
Bishop has never lacked good biographers, but Travisano has written a readable, appreciative book that does not analyze Bishop’s poems so much as read them out loud, admiring each line and beat. In fact, reading it is almost as enjoyable as reading one of Bishop’s strange and marvelous poems — or encountering her moose on a dark road late at night.
Mr. Travisano’s portrayal of the fear and volatility that characterized Bishop’s childhood lends depth to our understanding…of Bishop’s poetry more generally. The author suggests, compellingly, that Bishop’s inclination toward her art may stem from the baffling silences of her early life … Bishop’s reluctance to publish clearly personal poems no doubt relates, in part, to her lesbianism—an element of Bishop’s life about which Mr. Travisano is himself puzzlingly reticent. While he gives Bishop’s many relationships their due, he neglects their social context, raising questions about how Bishop related to her sexuality. What were the prevailing attitudes toward lesbianism in the times and countries where Bishop lived? How open was Bishop with her friends, fellow writers, and employers? That Bishop was understated on the topic…no doubt explains some of Mr. Travisano’s vagueness. Still, the reader would benefit from more knowledge of what we don’t know … Love Unknown points movingly to the many relationships that moored Bishop, keeping her together even as life—and her own self-destructive tendencies—threatened to split her apart. – Scott Bradfield, The Washington Post